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WCM Explores Camping’s Love/Hate Relationship

July 21, 2011 by   - () Leave a Comment

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of stories by Woodall’s Campground Management Editor Steve Bibler about the relationship between private campgrounds and the nation’s state park campgrounds. Read this and other stories in the July issue of WCM, going out this week to more than 13,000 campgrounds in North America.

The relationship between the nation’s public parks and the private campground industry is a strange and tenuous one – a love/hate sort of thing in many cases that varies from state to state and park operator to park operator.

In some states, like Maryland, Colorado and Idaho, the two seem to often work together for the betterment of the camping public.

Elsewhere, Florida, New York and other locales, that’s not always the case. In fact, there’s been a undercurrent of suspicion for years among many private entrepreneurs that the taxpayer funding of public facilities often translates to an unfair advantage for state and national parks which don’t need to show a profit in competing with their private counterparts.

Fast-forward to 2011 and the post-recessionary funding dilemmas that have been capturing so many headlines lately. Faced with severe cutbacks due to statewide budget shortfalls, states in particular have been shutting down whole parks while trimming staffs and services at others.

In Minnesota, in fact, where all of the state’s parks were closed the first two weeks of July due to a government shutdown, campers were left scrambling for space at private parks.

Indeed, experts tell WCM in this first of a two-part series, it will take years to get state parks from coast to coast back on their feet and serving the nation’s campers in the way they are accustomed.

In the meantime, state natural resource departments are seeking creative ways to save their parks – from sponsorships to special licensing to private concessionaires.

Philip McKnelly

The dilemma is especially exasperating to Philip McKnelly, executive director of the National Association of State Park Directors (NASPD), which represents park directors from all 50 states and Puerto Rico. A 20-year veteran of the North Carolina State Park Department, the last 15 as director, McKnelly suspects that virtually every state is experiencing some type of funding shortfall for its state park and campground programs.

“To be perfectly honest, if they’re not having problems, they’re keeping their heads down and their mouths shut,” McKnelly told WCM.

The private sector is cooperating in some cases. McKnelly says Kampgrounds of America Inc. (KOA) in particular has shown some interest in trying to help resolve this ongoing problem. KOA representatives attended NASPD’s annual convention last year in New Mexico and showed “some interest in assuming some responsibility with state campgrounds,” he said. But nothing has yet to materialize.

The specter of park privatization – turning management of specific state facilities over to private business – is under debate in states as far flung as Florida and Arizona, and it frankly raises red flags among some.

“Park systems are facing huge pressures, and things that were unthinkable a few years ago are suddenly on the table,” Rich Dolesh, chief of public policy for the National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA), told the Orlando Sentinel, “What has to be considered are, what are the trade-offs when you bring private management in? What kind of park experience are they providing? It’s no longer your park ranger that’s greeting somebody. The companies that do this do it for the bottom line.”

McKnelly, in turn, says the nation’s current economic atmosphere makes the state park dilemma even more acute. “I feel this could not be coming at a worse time,” he said, “when you still have close to record unemployment, still pretty close to record home foreclosures and all the obesity problems. I think it’s the worst time to be talking about closing ‘close-to-home’ recreational opportunities, where people don’t have to drive great distances to get into a more soothing environment.”

From his standpoint, the funding problems are most severe in three states – California, Arizona and New York – while a fourth, Florida, has come up with an intriguing yet controversial solution. Here’s a look at what’s going on in a few selected states.

California: A Stunning Spate of Campground Closures Underway

The problem in California has been well documented, with some 70 parks, 30 of them with campgrounds, set to close due to a funding shortfall. Sixty state parks are already partially closed and 90 others have reduced their services.

California operates the largest state park system in the U.S. Its 2010 budget was $354 million, which represented a 7.7% share of the state’s total operating budget of $46 billion. But overall funding for state parks has dropped 43% since fiscal 2006. Funding for the current fiscal year, which started July 1, is $99 million, down from $175 million just six years ago.

Because of a staggering $1.3 billion in deferred maintenance, the system, most agree, is in disrepair. As a result, demonstrations have been held in Sacramento and elsewhere in support of keeping the parks open. Legislators have drafted bills to make it easier for non-profit groups to take over some of the parks.

The threatened closures, by all appearances, have garnered a mixed reaction from members of the California Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds (CalARVC), which until last year had no relationship with the state parks.

“We have met a couple of times since November to begin opening the lines of communication,” said Debbie Sipe, CalARVC executive director, “learning what each is thinking, who the players are, how we help benefit each other, ways we can work together and ways we can’t, etc.”

Debbie Sipe

“The association certainly knows that as an industry we need good solid state parks,” she continued. “Many times, a camper’s first experience is in a state park. If that experience is bad (dirty restrooms, deteriorating buildings, etc.), then that person may never camp again.”

Curiously, however, those sentiments aren’t unanimous among CalARVC’s 300-plus members. “Some individual campgrounds don’t necessarily have the same opinion,” she said. They may be located near a state park that takes business away from them. With unfair advantages (in that public parks don’t have to pay taxes or insurance or adhere to the same labor laws, etc.), some individual park owners are happy to see some parks closing,” she said.

Her long-term prognosis for the state park system is not good until two things happen in the legislature. “One, elected officials can be convinced that state parks generate more tourism revenue than it takes to run and maintain the entire system and they fund the parks appropriately, and, two, elected officials stop using the park system as a pawn in their political battles,” she said.

New York State’s Taxpayers Do Appreciate Their State Parks

Then-Gov. David Paterson found out the hard way just how passionate New Yorkers are about their parks in 2010 when he tried to close 55 state parks and historic sites as a means of saving $6 million and helping to offset a massive $9.2 billion state deficit. People reacted, calling for the reopening of the closed facilities.

Consequently, Paterson announced in late May 2010 – after parks were closed for much of that month – that an agreement had been reached with the legislature to ensure there would be sufficient revenues to maintain operations at all New York State parks and historic sites – an agreement that achieved $74 million in state general fund savings.

After the state parks reopened for 2010’s Memorial Day weekend, the public’s response was pretty impressive as the state park system played host to nearly 57 million visitors in 2010, a jump of a million visitors over the previous year, according to the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation (OPRHP).

Booked nights were down slightly to about 2.77 million for OPRHP, which operates 65 campgrounds with 8,400 campsites, 750 cabins and 50 vacation rentals. The Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) operates about 7,000 campsites. And 2009 was a record year for camping. With 178 state parks and 35 historic sites, New York’s system is among the largest and oldest in America.

Donald G. Bennett Jr.

While New York public officials wrangled over the park crisis, the private sector’s key trade group, the 200-member Campground Owners of New York (CONY) and their 30,000 campsites, stood on the sidelines and hoped for the best.

Historically, CONY and the state parks have been fierce competitors in what CONY Executive Director Donald Bennett Jr. calls “definitely not a good relationship.”

“There are a lot of synergies we should be able to promote, said Bennett. “Up to now, we have not worked on that.”

He said that state parks are a “hot button issue” among CONY members. “If you bring it up at a meeting,” Bennett added, “it will take over the rest of the time slot.”

That said, CONY members see the value in a strong state park system and day-use facilities, the latter creating spillover business for CONY members located nearby. But they favor a system that is supported more by user fees. Bennett and CONY would like to see users pay more than the average $15 a night camping fee now in force. That’s half of typical fees at private campgrounds. Secondly, CONY favors an increase in user fees for out-of-state campers. But fee increases have been a hard sell in the Empire State.

New York’s new governor, Andrew Cuomo, faces the same budget woes of his predecessor, but Bennett has a better feeling about future prospects. “Gov. Cuomo has done a great job of paring down the state budget,” Bennett said. “On inauguration day, he took a 10% pay cut along with his top administrators. He has been able to work with both sides of the legislature. He’s done a pretty good job on issues. We look for some good things down the road. He has a good plan in place. If it is followed, it will work out well.”

Arizona’s State Parks Are On the Verge of Collapse

Arizona’s 30 state parks “are hanging on by a thread,” Ellen Bilbrey, chief public information officer, told WCM. “We are on a $19 million operational budget. We should be on a $30 million budget,” she said. “We have a $150 million backlog in maintenance.”

The department has laid off 200 employees but 800 volunteers have come forward to help keep the parks open. “We have cut everywhere, done everything there is in the book,” she said. “We’re running on fumes.”

Only two of the 30 parks are closed and most of the survivors are being funded in part by cities, towns, non-profit groups and even the Hopi Indian Tribe through 19 separate agreements. “They are very innovative but temporary,” Bilbrey says of the agreements, as the state looks for sustainable funding. For example, the towns of Payson and Star Valley in the northern part of the state have contributed some $30,000 to pay for a ranger to staff the Tonto Natural Bridge State Park near Payson.

This follows a scathing report from the Governor’s Sustainable Parks Task Force in 2009, which had some shocking observations about the state’s public parks. The last in the 48 contiguous states to be created, they’ve had no operating fund increases since 2002 and haven’t had a meaningful capital budget since 2003. The task force said the system “inspires a deep sense of shame in those who look below the surface. Arizona Parks are crumbling before our eyes and the entire system is on the verge of collapse. Why? Because we have been starving the parks system financially for most of this decade.”

Meanwhile, private campgrounds, represented by the Arizona Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds (Arizona ARVC), remained on the sidelines of the issue, much like CONY did in New York. “We have not worked with them the way we should have,” said Morris Farnsworth, Arizona ARVC executive director. “We have never tried to sit down and see what we could do.”

Farnsworth does not see the relationship as an adversarial one – except for private parks located near state parks with camping facilities – perhaps because Arizona’s state parks raised camping fees in years past so as not to undercut the private operators, which improved relations somewhat. That said, Arizona ARVC is conducting a strategic planning session in July and Farnsworth said the state parks’ plight is on the agenda.

Florida ARVC Opposing Park Privatization Plan

Florida’s state parks are losing money but the 53 parks that offer camping are profitable. So a state agency recommended in June that private developers be invited to build and operate campgrounds in the remaining 56 state parks that do not presently have them.

The 53 state parks that do allow camping offer 3,501 family campsites and are usually booked solid. More than 2 million people camped in state parks last year, generating more than $15.5 million for the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). Now, the state wants to boost those revenues.

As expected, that decision did not sit well with the 380-member Florida Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds (Florida ARVC), which considers the decision an assault on private enterprise.

“Is there a need for this? Absolutely not,” said Bobby Cornwell, executive director of Florida ARVC, who led a conference call among members on June 23 to discuss the state proposal. “From the private campground industry standpoint, we do not see the need whatsoever. A lot of private parks that are near state parks with campgrounds are already operating below capacity.”

Bobby Cornwell

The measure would alienate private campground owners even further from the state, with whom the current relationship is tepid at best. “The state doesn’t do this with any other tourist industry. It doesn’t build restaurants, it doesn’t build hotels,” he noted.

It was just another nail in the coffin for private park owners who view themselves as being undercut by state park campgrounds, which charge below-market rates for their facilities, Cornwell noted. The association sees the state venture as a further effort to attract some of the tourism dollars spent by the 5 million campers (half of them from out-of-state) who camp annually in the Sunshine State.

All in all, Cornwell claims that the move to privatize Florida’s parks, which he describes as “healthy, but tough,” will make them less healthy and a lot tougher. And he questions whether the state proposal will attract meaningful investment. After all, the land beneath the parks will remain state-owned, so what investor is going to pour millions into a campground he won’t totally own, Cornwell asks. “I don’t think it will be that appealing a proposition.”

But what if Florida moves forward with its plan, as it appears it will?

“We do oppose the idea,” he said. “However, we hope to make some inroads with the process, be part of the process and minimize whatever negative effects it could have on the private camping industry,” he said.

The association will have some input as the plan evolves, as Cornwell has been appointed to sit on the statewide advisory council overseeing the project. And Cornwell and Florida ARVC legislative advisers met with State Park Director Donald Forgione on June 28 to discuss the matter.

Hearings began the first week of July about building campgrounds in four state parks. After hundreds of people attended the hearing about developing an RV campground in Honeymoon State Park, the governor withdrew the plan for the park and said the entire proposal would be studied further.

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